Friday, September 10, 2010

Joe Hasham

Here an interesting interview from Joe Hasham who speaks about the local theatre scene which appeared in the sun newspaper in Oct 11. 2007

Title: Play not the prima donna

Veteran actor-director Joe Hasham whose most recent work was the acclaimed Tunku The Musical says Malaysian actors are generally a spoilt lot who do not bother to perfect their craft. He also tells BISSME S. that Malaysian audiences tend to turn down their noses at local plays. At 59, he has been involved in theatre for more than 40 years and has directed more than 100 plays. He and his wife Faridah Merican, the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre, run The Actors Studio as well as swanky theatre venue The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

theSun: What is the biggest challenge that a theatre artist like you faces in this country? 

Joe Hasham: Thankfully, I am blessed in that I don’t have to worry about earning a living. I think with most theatre artists in this country, their biggest problem is trying to earn a living. It is absolutely no different anywhere else in the world. Actually, our performing artists are a little bit more fortunate than other performing artists anywhere else in the world.

Why do you say this?

Because there are more jobs than there are people. Why do you think the Actors Studio ends up using the same people all the time? We are trying as much as possible to get new people and I am sure other theatre companies are also doing the same.

Can you give an example?

For instance, if I was casting Tunku The Musical in Australia which has almost the same population as Malaysia, for the lead role, I will have at least 100 people who could do the part. Here we have one or two who could do the role. So there are more jobs and fewer people. Whereas in Australia, UK and America, there are not many jobs but so many people.

Why do you think there are fewer people in the local theatre scene?

It is a cultural thing, particularly among the Chinese. Because Chinese families are a little bit sceptical about their children devoting their time to the performing arts; the parents feel they should be getting a degree, become a doctor, businessman, accountant, lawyer or engineer.
That is why you find within the performing arts in this country, we tend to get a lot of Malays and a lot of Indians. Because they really have a passion for it.

So, are you saying the Chinese don’t have a passion for the arts?

It is not to say the Chinese do not have a passion for it, they do. But I think the family and the cultural restrictions are a little bit stronger. So my biggest problem is finding people and trying to nurture the young talents. Faridah and I are forever nurturing young people who can write, who can direct and who can perform. It is a never-ending battle.

What changes would you like to see taking place in local theatre?

Last year, The Actors Studio had Sarah Jane Scaife conduct a workshop on Beckett (the writer Samuel Beckett). She is a renowned Beckett exponent. If she were to give the same workshop in Australia, England and America or anywhere in Europe, people would be clamouring to join the workshop. I mean not just people, I mean top actors … established actors. When we did the workshop here, sure we got the quota we wanted. But not one established actor (turned up).

Why is that?

Malaysian actors think they know it all. That is the impression we get. It is not just me saying this. The majority of Malaysian actors are very spoilt and they do not take the opportunity that is given to them.
They feel it is not important to make time to do courses. It is a different mindset in Australia, UK, Europe and America.
The actors (there) are forever trying to improve. They will attend as many workshops as they can. They will attend as many acting classes as they can.
Top actors are forever revisiting this kind of classes. People like Dustin Hoffman and the late Rod Steiger were forever revisiting their basics. Our actors are not really interested in doing this because, I believe, they think they are above it.

How do you change this mindset?

It can only happen over time. I often tell my actors that they are lazy. I have no compunction telling them that. I often tell them that they need to revisit themselves. I often tell them that they need to be choosy about the work they do… about the work they accept... about the directors they work with.
On the other hand, I also appreciate the fact that they have to earn a living, particularly those who are full-time actors. I think the younger actors, the less experienced ones, feel once they have done one thing, suddenly they know it all. Of course, that is wrong.
There are actors all around the world who have been acting for more than 50 years who are still searching and who are still perfecting their craft.
For us in Malaysia to really be able to say we are professional in theatre, this attitude has to change.

Are the actors angry when you call them lazy?

I do not care if they are pissed off with me. I am not here to win a popularity contest. My mission is to nurture the creative talent. I do not hold back.
It breaks my heart to see really talented people just scratching the surface of their talent. If they are willing to put more into it, they could be world-beaters.
Absolute discipline towards their craft is necessary. A lot of Malaysian actors do not think there’s anything wrong in arriving for rehearsal late. They do not do it when I am directing them because I will taruh (scold) them. They do not seem to realise that by being late, they affect the entire cast. Because sometimes they are the integral part of the scene, (but) they are not there.

Do you think the government, in particular the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, is doing enough for theatre?

That is an interesting question. Nobody is perfect. In certain areas they are doing a lot. It is no secret I am probably one of (Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister) Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim’s biggest fans. I think what the man has done and what he is attempting to do, in terms of making performing arts flourish, should be applauded.
He is only being hindered by his predecessors. That is probably not their fault, either. Because at that time we didn’t have a Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. We had a Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Tourism was the main push because it was bringing in a lot of money.
One would have to be a fool not to notice the difference in the performing arts ever since we got the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. The funding for theatre and the encouragement we have been getting are positive.
It is not perfect. Datuk Seri Rais Yatim would admit that himself. It takes a long time to change a mindset. The other people in the ministry need to be re-educated and change their mindset. It is happening slowly. I think there is great hope.

Why do you think some theatre personalities feel the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage is not doing enough for theatre?

I have no idea. Theatre people are very quick to criticise. Sometimes it is emotional criticism without taking stock of what they are really saying.
I think he (Rais) is doing as much as he can. I think he has done very well. He is a lawyer (by training). He has a certain quality and style about him. He understands what the performing arts are all about.
The only problems I can see the ministry having is trying to change the mindset of some of the officers further down the line who have certain ways of operating and giving funding to certain organisations. Now that is changing, slowly. The ministry is totally open to any form of theatre – Indian, Chinese, English and Malay.

What is your view on censorship?

Whichever country you go to, there is censorship in one form or another. There is an old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. If Caesar is paying your salary, don’t cut Caesar’s head off.
We have a set of rules and regulations and we try to abide by them. Sometimes we can find ways around them intelligently and there is nothing wrong with that. It is our responsibility as theatre practitioners to keep on pushing the edge… pushing it as far as we can go.

Some theatre personalities have long complained about censorship. But you sing a different tune. Why?

When the powers that be object to certain things about their play, some theatre personalities will immediately go to the media and complain the authorities ban this and that. We do not do that. That is one sure way of upsetting everyone and not getting what you want.
If you treat them with respect, and if you treat them as equals, and if you sit down with them and say, can we please have a dialogue about this … Can you please explain to us why you are objecting to this? And you will find most of the objections will be watered down. And you may find you will have to make one or two minor changes.
Our authorities are not idiots. Some of them may not be the most intelligent people in the world but they are not idiots. They know what they are doing.

It is difficult to believe you do not have any complaints about censorship.

Faridah and I do not touch on political issues. It doesn’t concern us. Also, the religious issue. Anyone who wants to get involved in a religious argument in theatre is mad. If you are going to talk about religion or portray religion on stage, there are ways of doing it. Some people are putting it just for the sake of putting it.
Then, there is nudity. Many countries do not allow you to be nude on stage. Many countries, I mean western countries, as well.
One area where we probably have more censorship than any other country is politics. But this is the country we live in. What are you going to do? Bash your head against the wall? You may as well become a politician. Fight your battles in politics; don’t fight them in theatre.

So you believe in working with the censors?

Yes. I certainly do not believe in fighting with them because you can’t win. It has been proved from time to time you can’t win. I believe in dialogue. I believe in confrontation. You confront the issues with the people who are telling you that you can’t do this. You talk to the people instead of going to the press. You may have to reach a compromise. But life itself is a compromise.

Some people say that theatre, especially English theatre, caters to the elitist and the arty-farty. What is your comment? 

I do not believe theatre caters to the elitist and arty-farty. I think it is the people who make theatre elitist and arty-farty.
There are a lot of Malaysians who will not go for local theatre. But they will pay RM350 to watch a second-grade show from the West End or Broadway. They will pay a huge amount of money to see that. But they feel spending RM40 to see a local play is too much.
I have met so many people who say ‘I do not see Malaysian theatre’ and I feel like slapping them. Maybe that is our fault, too. We have not educated them about Malaysian theatre.
The Actors Studio caters for the man-in-the-street. If you notice the price range of our tickets, we have family packages, senior citizen’s rate, children’s rate and the disabled rate. We try to keep the price of tickets as low as possible.
We do not make theatre for the elitist. If you are just targeting the elitist you might just roll over and die. Theatre is not for the elitist.
When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he was writing for the man- in-the-street. They (the public) used to stand around the circle and watch his plays being performed. These were ordinary people like cobblers and farmers.

Why do you think our audiences are reluctant to see local plays?

They are ignorant. They don’t know any better. Just because something is from abroad, it doesn’t necessarily have to be better. Look at Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical. It is a brilliant production. It is better than any production that I have seen that has come to our country.

The silver screen promises more fame and fortune. Why haven’t you tried directing films?

On many occasions, I have been asked to direct the films here. I take one look at the script and I have to decline. Unfortunately, our scriptwriters are not up to par yet. When I look at some of the awards given out, it is an absolute joke. I walked out from one particular film 30 minutes after it started. But the same film ended up winning four awards recently.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Faridah and I hope to make a big influence in schools. We want to bring arts to school. We’ve already had meetings with the Ministry of Education. It has built two performing arts schools. We hope to be able to work with them and expand it on a broader scale … to take it to a national level. For the performing arts to really thrive, it has to start from pre-school. We need to expose them to the performing arts from young. We do not want all of them to become actors. But at least they get knowledge and they will become better people for it. Performing art of any kind will only make us better.

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